November 1919 – Los Angeles III: Costumes

We call him The Mogul, a man of great stature and influence in the United States press. After a meteoric rise to prominence in newspapers, he is now branching out into motion pictures, newsreels, and perhaps even the upper reaches of government. He is my American counterpart in most respects; in fact, his career has been so similar to mine that seeing him is almost like looking in a mirror. "A funhouse mirror," The Lady likes to joke.

So he may not look the part. But he is one of a handful of people in this country with the power to set the political agenda, influence elections and direct society's moral compass. We should all be so lucky.

Not that such things matter very much in Hollywood, a place where the color of Miss Swanson's hair as she signs a new film contract counts for more than the color of Woodrow Wilson's face as he signs the Treaty of Versailles. Here, Versailles is just another movie set. Yet The Mogul speaks this language as fluently as the Washington jargon.

With his hostess The Comedienne, The Mogul is renowned for lavish parties the likes of which Newport and New York have never seen. It helps that Los Angeles is home to imaginations of great creativity that he can call upon to dream up ever more elaborate affairs; it also helps that The Comedienne possesses both soaring vision and resolute earthiness – the ketchup and mustard bottles on the table next to the champagne at every dinner party are a testament to this. Most importantly, the guest list never fails to dazzle.

The pair are most famous for their masquerade parties, and tonight's is indeed full of whimsy and famous faces. Populating the manicured gardens this November evening are any number of familiar stars: The Tramp, The Vamp, The Lover, The Brother, The Sweetheart, The Sheik and The dashing Swashbuckler. The Arab, The Pole, The Cowboy, the Troll, The Captain of the Flying Aces, and The Man of a Thousand Faces. The It Girl, The Queen, The Idol, The King, The Chase, The Dream; the list is obscene. (Forgive me, dear reader; I couldn't resist.)

Mingling with so many grand titles – bestowed by the fan magazines and studio press packets rather than any sovereign – The Lady and your Publisher feel somewhat less special. After all, a knighthood is hardly of interest when one is standing next to a man known across the globe as "The Glasses."

Compounding the confusion of identities, everyone is in costume. The Tramp arrived as Louis XVI; The Queen as a gypsy. The Mogul and his St. Nicholas ensemble are well-matched, as is The Comedienne and her clown suit. Less suitably, perhaps, your Publisher has transformed into a samurai, while The Lady makes an especially fetching geisha.

The Lady is indeed fond of kimonos, although showing off such a predilection to the world was not her original intention when she and The Comedienne decided to raid the wardrobe department of Fine Arts Studios. But one astute costumer deemed her fair complexion and obsidian hair ideal; as The Lady tells it, she was immediately bundled up in Japanese attire and hurried into the hair and makeup department.

Within the hour she found herself on a soundstage under hot theatrical lights, D.W. Griffith bellowing at her through a megaphone to "act more Chinese." If he had consulted me, I would have told him The Lady does not take orders happily or at all, but he had the pleasure of finding this out for himself when she stopped the filming to inform him that Chinese and Japanese were in fact two different cultures. Accuracy not being very crucial to the motion picture business, the director dismissed this as unimportant, and The Lady went back to pouring tea in the background of a vaguely Asian opium den as Richard Barthelmuss preached the message of the Buddha to Lillian Gish.

At the party, The Comedienne congratulates The Lady on her debut and proposes to host a screening party in her honor when the film is released; The Mogul offers her a screen test on the spot. The Lady flatly refuses both. She explains that after two days on set, trying unsuccessfully to maintain a serious expression behind her geisha makeup in the middle of this motion picture circus, Mr. Griffith decided her talents were no longer required. "I'm not very good at being inconspicuous," she clarifies.

So began and ended Madam Butterfly's acting career. At least she got to keep the costume.

R.C.


AN: The film is 'Broken Blossoms,' in case you were wondering. And if the identity of The Mogul isn't obvious, here's a hint: "Rosebud."